The Cultural Commons and Social Justice: Foundations for a New European Humanism

This text is a contribution to the Green Paper produced by the Toolquiz project funded by the Interreg-C European programme of inter-regional co-operation. Toolquiz aims at creating the conditions for an inclusive creative economy.

The European construction is at a crossroads. Faced with a major global crisis that challenges its very existence, it must redefine itself by adopting new directions for its policies. These orientations can no longer be expressed negatively, as the avoidance of war, or as the rejection of National egoisms. They must install a new positive agenda, in which European citizens, and in particular the youth, can recognize what they have already started to build, and which they can trust as enabling them to build it further.

While the finance-dominated economy is sinking and pulling societies downwards, citizens, advocacy groups and intellectuals have started building new agendas. There will be many paths opened, and this text explores but one of them: the recognition that in the digital era, a huge share of knowledge production, cultural creativity and public expression occurs in a non-market sphere, where the products of activities are placed under commons statutes. Recognizing it, we outline how the cultural commons can be one of the laboratories of the exploration of a new humanism, and under which conditions it can contribute to social justice.

The non-market digital sphere

For a long time, information technology and networks seemed to result mostly in large organizations being able to develop new management and control mechanisms. From the beginning of the 1980s, the spread of personal computers and the progressive take-up of the Internet and later of the Web put information technology and networks in the hands of the individuals. The significance of this change was long hidden, partly because it took times for people to realize how to make use of this new potential, and partly because our statistical apparatus has been built to record principally activities that generate monetary transactions. When Manuel Castells wrote the first volume of his “Information Era” trilogy in 1996, he was aware of the potential of computers and the Internet for civil society cooperation but doubted that it could counterbalance the power of large organizations. 23 years later, he declared about the democratic uprisings in the Arab world: “These popular insurrections in the Arab world constitute a turning point in the social and political history of humanity. And perhaps the most important of the internet-led and facilitated changes in all aspects of life, society, the economy and culture.” (Rovira, 2011) The potential for democracy is but one illustration of a much more general transformation which is characterized by the birth of a giant sphere of activity and exchanges developing outside markets. “Outside markets” in the specific sense of proceeding without the constraints of price-mediated monetary transactions and the related contractual arrangements. The predominant economicism in public policy prevented it to recognize the extreme importance of this new “non-market” sphere. Up to recently, it was almost impossible to find any reliable statistics on the time spent by individuals to write texts with computers and on the Internet, or to organize, publish and share digital photographs, while a wealth of indicators were scrutinizing the development of electronic commerce and other transaction-related activities.

The development of digital non-market activities of individuals led to an unprecedented public expression: tens of millions of personal blogs, and hundreds of millions of short messages, comments or social network actions per day. More generally the personal production of publicly accessible contents in many different media has grown explosively, first for texts and photographs, then increasingly for music and moving image. 20% of European (EU-27) Internet users, that is 14% of Europeans aged 16 or more produce contents for sharing on the Internet (Deroin, 2010). Interestingly, the development of digital creativity and public expression did not replace existing cultural practice: on the contrary, there was a increase in activities such as playing a musical instrument, visual arts, dance, writing poetry or fiction from 1995 (date at which the Web reached a significant public usage).1 It is difficult to assess qualitatively this change, but there is an increased recognition that one finds more people at all levels of creativity, from the simple interpersonal communication to professional-level practice.

What we have witnessed is not just the emergence of a new medium where an expanded set of productions would converge. The non-market digital sphere is the seat of an entirely new mode of production, based on sharing and cooperation. The individuals who engage in this new form of production are no longer reducible to being consumers of products and services or receptors of contents. It makes them very different of what political institutions used to consider as “their” citizens.

The new commons of culture and knowledge

Collaborating to produce new artefacts such as software is as old as … information technology itself. From 1950 to 1970, new algorithms (methods to process information by software) were shared in the open by scientists and engineers who needed every available mind to help exploring this new continent. It simply seemed the natural thing to do with information and everything that could be represented by information.2 Between 1978 and 1984, a number of researchers such as Donald Knuth3 and Richard Stallman made the project of commons-based collaboration explicit. This happened partly in reaction to the introduction of copyright restraints on the use and copying of software, but it was also simply a reaffirmation of the scientific ethics.4 Richard Stallman went a step further, because he anticipated from the start that in the new era, the freedom to access, use, modify and share information would be relevant not just to technical people, but to humanity as a whole.

It is only from 1995 and the widespread take-up of the Web that the immensity of the new commons of information, culture and knowledge became evident. Even before the birth of blogging, tens of millions of personal Web pages existed. There were often disregarded as being only the equivalent of family photo albums made public, but some of these pages became key sources of information or specialized knowledge, for instance on cartography or movies. More generally, despite an overwhelming evidence that the Web was successful because it allowed the non-market sharing of information and knowledge, the predominant economicist view saw this as a sign of immaturity to be removed when the normal economy would impose itself on the Web. The same analysts and policy-makers endorsed electronic commerce and the .coms as a bright future, until the corresponding bubble pitifully crashed in 2000. Meanwhile the economy of providing means to the non-market activities of communication, socializing, public expression and creative endeavours proved resilient and accounted for a significant part of the total growth in developed countries between 1995 and 2005.

As more and more people invested the Web for producing contents of all types, the commons-based model of production described by Yochai Benkler (2002); Benkler (2011) led to remarkable achievements. In this model, people and organizations co-operate on producing information artefacts or even physical products by placing the intermediate products under a regime of common property and free use. It has given us Wikipedia, hundreds of millions of photographs shared under Creative Commons licenses, tens of millions of blogs, collaborative innovation in software or biology (Aigrain, 2009), and open data or open access publications in science.

However, in many domains, commons-based production and non-market sharing had started colliding with the efforts of the media and information industry to move into the exact opposite direction: making exclusive rights stronger in the digital domain so as to install a new Eldorado (for them) where each copy or even each usage of a digital work could be sold at a monopoly price even though it costs almost nothing to produce a copy. The field in which this clash materialized is entirely new: it is the rights of use of each of us. For the first time in its three century-history, copyright started regulating the rights of use of individuals including in the non-market sphere. This process initiated in the 1980s led to a stronger and stronger effort to eradicate a basic capability of individuals: sharing digital works between themselves.

Use rights: extended or annihilated?

For centuries, works on carriers such as books and later photographs and recordings could be freely shared between individuals without aim at profit. More precisely, what an individual did with a work in his or her possession was none of the business of copyright law,((Or at least its real life enforcement.)) provided it did not constitute a commercial exploitation of the work. Actually, even some forms of commercial exploitation such as reselling and lending were authorized under the first sale/exhaustion of rights doctrines. With the digital era, our societies were faced with a choice: either they decided that when works could be easily copied and shared without the original possessor losing access, the effects of these formerly recognized use rights were so much extended that they could no longer be tolerated. Or, on the contrary, considering that these rights were at the heart of culture itself,5 one could have welcome their extended scope and adapted law and business models to this situation. It turned out that societies and law or policy-making took totally opposed paths.

In the second half of the 1990s, Internet users started to share digital works (in particular musical recordings) they held in their personal collections. This was first done by simply posting them on Web pages and Usenet news groups, then from 1998 using more sophisticated file sharing systems and protocols. Without possible doubt, these individuals thought of such practice as sharing, and they considered what they shared to be theirs even though the work might had been authored or performed by others. Shawn Fanning, who developed the original Napster defined it as a tool for pooling record libraries. The publishers and distributors of music and other media saw this non-market exchange of works as the public becoming a competitor to their industry. Even though previous examples such as the free-to-air broadcasting of music on radio from the 1920s have amply demonstrated that the free access to cultural contents is compatible with a healthy development of a commercial sales economy (in this case of 79 rpm records), they soon staged a war against their consumers, a quite unprecedented business model, but one they have consistently pursued. They obtained law and policy, and put in place technology and contracts to outlaw or prevent sharing. This process, if it is not stopped by a reaction of society and policy-makers, will not stop short of eradicating the notion of a free sphere of non-market sharing of culture. The reader who would find exaggeration in this statement will consider the case of electronic books platforms, where both law and contracts sometimes tend to make the commercial publishing of freely shareable works impossible. France recently adopted a law on the single price for electronic books, the two chambers of Parliament rejecting amendments that simply stated that the single price rule should not prevent authors from authorizing the free sharing of their works. In the US, some key eBook device manufacturers impose contracts on publishers that state that no form of dissemination of the work in electronic form can proceed at a lower price than the one of the commercial eBook, in effect preventing the licensing of commercial eBooks under Creative Commons licenses and the development of a hybrid economy of commercial sales and free sharing.6 These are extreme cases, but they show us where a purely economicist view of culture, associated with a fundamentalist view of copyright, will lead us. It is time to come back to sanity, and to reaffirm the legitimacy of a wide non-market sphere of sharing of culture.

A commons-compatible cultural economy

Sharing: Culture and the Economy in the Internet Age 2012 builds upon proposals by researchers and policy advocates in the past 10 years. The book outlines how one could legalize and frame non-market sharing between individuals, how one could put in place a new financing scheme to give true social rights to financial rewards for contributors and to ensure the availability of financing for producing new works. The book also discusses the nature of a cultural commons-compatible cultural economy, and defends that it is the only form of fair trade in this domain, and that it can successfully grow.

The motivations to socially recognize the value of sharing between individuals are not just to depart from the war against sharing and its extreme effects on fundamental rights (freedom of expression and communication, privacy, and the right to a fait trial, for instance). It is also to seize an extraordinary opportunity to give access to culture to all in a manner that empowers many to contribute to it. A many-to-all cultural society is at our door, if we are not afraid to face its challenges. Yes, the challenges are great: how will we construct new ways to identify what is of interest or of quality (however one will choose to define it) in an ocean of works? How will we make sure that valuable editorial functions remain sustainable in this new world? How will the literate practices in the ancient world of analogic carriers feed the new practices of collaborative practices in the digital sphere, as Milad Doueihi (2009); Doueihi (2011) advocates when urging us to build a digital humanism. It is not possible to address all these issues in detail in the limits of this text, but it is worth addressing a key one: under which conditions will the cultural commons contribute to social justice?

The potential of the cultural commons for social justice

There is one obvious social benefit of a better recognition of cultural commons and of rights of users towards them: to guarantee access to an immense wealth of digital works, at least for those who can access the Internet with reasonably open devices.7 A particularly important element is that, through sharing, the user enters in possession of a digital representation of work, that can be used to analyse it, compare it with other works, reuse it in one’s own practice. In contrast, streaming, that was indirectly promoted by the war against sharing, limits the user to a form of reception similar to television or radio with time-shift ability.8 The access to the cultural commons is in itself a great benefit, of particular value to the less advantaged citizens. It is nonetheless no guarantee that they will be able to take full advantage of this possibility to develop culturally, to have more agency in society and the economy, to live a richer social life.

A real contribution of the cultural commons to social justice depend on many other elements, among which:

  • an education system that promotes a true digital literacy, rooted in older forms of literacy, and values cooperation,
  • cultural changes in the relation to technology, so it is no longer taken as given, but problematized and debated,
  • and above all, a change in our socio-economic systems in order to make possible for people to regain better control of the use of their time, a key scarce resource at the level of each individual.

Each of these changes will face the same obstacles that the recognition of the cultural commons themselves: they depend on a major change of focus in policy. The predominant focus on a finance-dominated economy must give place to a number of qualitative objectives that are of a social, cultural, ecological and political nature.

European policies at the crossroads

More than 10 years ago, the Public Debate transnational think-tank (2000) published a text titled “Quality-oriented policies and the European construction”. We tried to outline a new agenda for European policy building that would depart from the predominant focus on markets and would accept a number of heterogeneous qualitative objectives in the various domains of policy. We choose the notion of quality-oriented policies, so people could endorse it without committing to one particular overall political orientation. For us, European policies were already at the crossroads in 1999, and we predicted the failure of institutional reform if it was not accompanied by a redefinition of policy objectives. The crossroads is much closer, and we are travelling at a frightening speed towards a dead-end if we do not choose another direction. However, new paths are now open. The commons-based policy agenda has been articulated at a much more global level in arenas such as the International Commons Conference in Berlin in 2010 (und Heinrich Böll Stiftung, 2012) . New bottom-up movements regenerate the democratic ideal. The European policies will empower citizens to define their own agendas, or there will be no European policy.


[Aigrain 2009] Philippe Aigrain, “L’innovation partagée en biologie”, in Florence Bellivier and Christine Noiville, ed., La bioéquité : batailles autour du partage du vivant (Editions Autrement, 2009). Extended version at

[Aigrain 2012] Philippe Aigrain, Sharing: Culture and the Economy in the Internet Age (Amsterdam University Press, 2012). With the contribution of Suzanne Aigrain.

[Benkler 2002] Yochai Benkler, “Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and the Nature of the Firm”, Yale Law Journal 4 (2002).

[Benkler 2011] Yochai Benkler, The Penguin and the Leviathan: How cooperation triumphs over self-interest (Crown Business, 2011). ISBN 978-0-385-52576-3

[Castells 1996] Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture vol. I. The Rise of the Network Society, (Wiley-Blackwell, 1996).

[Deroin 2010] Valérie Deroin, “Diffusion et utilisation des TIC en France et en Europe en 2009” (2010), Ministère de la culture / DEPS,

[Doueihi 2009] Milad Doueihi, “Pour un humanisme numérique” (2009).

[Doueihi 2011] Milad Doueihi, Pour un humanisme numérique (Seuil, 2011). ISBN: 978-2-02-100089-4

[Lessig 2008] Lawrence Lessig, REMIX : Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy (The Penguin Press, 2008). ISBN = 978-1-59420-172-1

[Marta Beck-Domzalska 2007] Marta Beck-Domzalska, coordinator, “EUROSTAT Cultural statistics pocketbook” (2007).

[Rovira 2011] Jordi Rovira, “Interview with Manuel Castells” (2011).

[Woehr 1996] Jack Woehr, “An Interview with Donald Knuth”, Dr. Dobb’s Journal (1996), pp. 16–22.

[Public Debate 2000] Public Debate transnational think-tank , “Quality-oriented Policies and the European Construction” (2000).

[Helfrich 2012] Silke Helfrich und Heinrich Böll Stiftung, ed., “Commons-Für eine neue Politik jenseits von Markt und Stadt”, [transcript] (2012).

This post is also available in: French

  1. See [Eurostat2007, Aigrain2011]. []
  2. As examples, see the refusal of John von Neumann in the 1940s to patent his structure of computers and the related programming model, or the fact that significant algorithms such as the Huffmann code for compression of information were freely disseminated as early as 1952. []
  3. Author of the monumental “The Art of Programming” from 1969 to this day, see, Donald Knuth is also the key force behind the TeX typesetting free software for scientific publication, today used in many other fields, including for writing this text. []
  4. Donald Knuth declared in 1996 interview: “I would encourage programmers to make their work known the way mathematicians and scientists have done for centuries. It’s a comfortable, well-understood system and, you get a lot of satisfaction knowing people like what you did.” Woehr (1996). []
  5. A large share of cultural goods are bought for making a gift, and sharing books or other cultural goods is the very mode by which a shared culture is built among friends, communities and societies. []
  6. The concept of such a hybrid economy is discussed by Lessig (2008). []
  7. The development of smartphone and other mobile devices has greatly extended the number of people who have access to the Internet, in particular in emerging countries. However, the fact that these devices have small screens for most and are under strong proprietary control of their manufacturers, AppStore or telecommunication operators severely limits the cultural empowerment of their users, except for real-time communication of personal photography and video. []
  8. Ability to start, stop and restart viewing or listening at a chosen time. []

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